THE BOOMTOWN RATS: A TONIC FOR THE TROOPS (1978)
1) Like Clockwork; 2) Blind Date; 3) (I Never Loved) Eva Braun; 4) Living In An Island; 5) Don't Believe What You Read; 6) She's So Modern; 7) Me And Howard Hughes; 8) Can't Stop; 9) (Watch Out For) The Normal People; 10) Rat Trap.
Already — and not a moment too soon — they are beginning to change, shifting their sound to adapt to some of the evolving standards of New Wave, difficult as it is for a band that grew up and matured in Thin Lizzy country. It is hard to tell whether Geldof was going against his inner self on any of these songs, but in the end, it was good, because striving for «quirkiness» in their music helps A Tonic For The Troops exude enough irony, sarcasm, and playfulness to fully compensate for Bob's «social seriousness». The entire album is loaded with critical messages, but they are delivered in such a way that it is downright impossible to call its overall tone «preachy». On the whole, it is a damn fun listen.
Not that the musical offerings of the Boomtown Rats interest most people who write about this album — usually, they are more concerned with the storytelling aspect, and it is hard to blame them when one of the songs is called ʽI Never Loved Eva Braunʼ and is sung from the viewpoint of you-know-who, or when another of the songs is all concerned with various suicide attempts (ʽLiving On An Islandʼ), or yet another deals with euthanasia (ʽCan't Stopʼ). However, this is not «rock theater» à la 10cc — Geldof does not have the required vocal qualities (I mean, he doesn't even try to imitate a German accent on ʽEva Braunʼ and thank God for that), and the band's musical training is much too basic to turn any of these songs into mini-rock operas or anything.
What really matters is Geldof's ability to come up with decent hooks, and the band's ability to rock out with verve and imagination. ʽLike Clockworkʼ may lyrically deal with the maddening impossibility of liberating yourself from your biorhythm (or something like that), but more important is that the song does imitate clockwork, at least as far as guitars, percussion, and backing vocals are concerned, and although it is bouncy and energetic per se, there is a certain tragic «impossibility to escape» planted in that mechanical bounce, at least not until the alarm clock rings and stops you dead in its tracks. Or, if you do not pay much attention to the lyrics of ʽEva Braunʼ (or if you do not know who Eva Braun was in the first place), it is not the lyrical Hitlerisms of the track that will draw you in, but its overall exuberant guitar-piano coordination and the catchy "la-la-la"'s of the chorus — what else?
The punk chainsaw buzz, or at least a guitar sound approximately close to that, is also introduced here on songs like ʽShe's So Modernʼ, whose riff could be very easily converted to ʽBlitzkrieg Bopʼ if needed — the difference being that The Boomtown Rats are not consciously striving for barebones minimalism, and happily look for countermelodies, piano overdubs, relatively more complex guitar solos, and more complex vocal modulation. Ironically, the catchy singalong choruses are still the most memorable ingredient in any Boomtown Rats song — in this respect at least, they are not at all different from the Ramones.
The big one is waiting at the end: ʽRat Trapʼ is the longest track on the LP and the most elaborate one, a streetlife anthem that should be implicitly dedicated to Phil Lynott and Bruce Springsteen, I think — what with Geldof relying on the vocal inflections of the former and the sax player having copiously studied the sax solos on the albums of the latter (as far as I understand, Bob does not play the sax himself; in a famous incident on Top of the Pops, he shoved a candelabra in his mouth to mimic a sax solo). But the song stands out on its own, with a fairly complex arrangement (I really like the way in which the guitar and piano melodies are interwoven with each other) and, of course, the unforgettable shotgun blast of a chorus — "it's a rat trap... and you've been CAUGHT!" is a line that should be much more tightly associated with Geldof forever and ever than his professed dislike of a particular day of the week. Well, maybe it actually is, I don't know — ʽRat Trapʼ was No. 1, and they even got to tear up portraits of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John on Top of the Pops in a short moment of punkish triumph.
I cannot say that on the whole, Tonic For The Troops is an artistic improvement over the debut — it is a sonic departure, yes, but these Irish rowdies seem such a typically «classic rock band» at heart that it is hard for me to find a song on which they would be more convincing than ʽMary Of The 4th Formʼ. Still, they are able to accumulate these new sonic elements without sounding too imitative or rip-offey (as compared to some of the more blatant Talking-Headisms on the next album, for instance), and the best songs — ʽLike Clockworkʼ, ʽRat Trapʼ, ʽEva Braunʼ, ʽShe's So Modernʼ — are every bit as well-written and well performed, so that giving the record a proper thumbs up is fairly easy business. Come to think of it, I couldn't probably think of a reason why a record like this should be less respected than, say, Elvis Costello's This Year's Model — the real big difference being that the Attractions used squeakier keyboards. Damn these Londoners, always having the upper hand over the Irish.